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Series of Explosions Kills More Than 200 in Iraq

July 9, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT

GWEN IFILL: The Iraq story, the military offensive there, and the U.S. Senate debate here. We get the military story from New York Times correspondent Michael Gordon. He has been embedded with the 3rd Stryker Brigade in Baquba. Ray Suarez spoke with him earlier this evening from Baghdad.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael Gordon, welcome back to the program. You’ve spent much of the last several weeks embedded with American troops in Iraq. Tell us where you’ve been and what kind of action the units you’ve been embedded with have seen.

MICHAEL GORDON, New York Times: Well, several weeks ago, the United States military began an operation in the area outside of Baghdad in what they called the Baghdad belts, and this was an operation that is pretty much intended to improve the security in Baghdad by going after the sanctuaries outside the city for the al-Qaida of Mesopotamia group.

And I was with a Stryker brigade, 3/2, which went up to Baquba and tried to clear out the western half of the city, which had become a sanctuary over the past several months for the insurgents.

Striking in a number of directions

RAY SUAREZ: This was said by the Bush administration to be one of the major objectives of the troop buildup in Iraq. Were they successful in routing out al-Qaida units and killing the enemy?

MICHAEL GORDON: Well, this is really an operation that's going on throughout the summer. I mean, what happened was the surge was announced in January by President Bush. And I know they like to call it a surge, but in terms of the rate at which the forces were deployed, it was really a trickle.

And it took until June for all five of the additional brigade combat teams to arrive here in Iraq. And then the question was, what to do with these five brigades? And the generals decided that about half of this force should be allocated to the area contiguous to Baghdad, which was the sanctuary for the insurgents.

And they put together an operation which really struck out in a number of different directions simultaneously. There was the piece that went up to Baquba, which is the provincial capital of the Diyala province, which has really been a haven for insurgents for the past year. There was part that went southeast of the city in an area called Arab Jabour. There was a Marine expeditionary unit, the 13th MEU, that went up toward Lake Tharthar. There was an element, actually, inside the city in the Rashid area.

And the idea was to strike out in all these different directions simultaneously to hit at a number of different al-Qaida of Mesopotamia or al-Qaida of Iraq sanctuaries or presumed sanctuaries and to -- and these are the places where the car bombs are manufactured, where a lot of the insurgents are holed up.

And the real purpose of this was to try to break the back of this organization, push them away from Baghdad, because this group has been one of the principal insurgent organizations that's been fueling the sectarian violence.

Now, as far as Baquba is concerned, the particular operation I was on, what happened was this Stryker brigade literally encircled this western part of the city, threw a cordon around it, and then the troops get off, the infantry got off and began to methodically clear all the houses in this part of the city. The main threat, really, was a lot of what they call IEDs, buried bombs, deep buried bombs, and a lot of house bombs. It's not a new threat, house bombs, but they were used more prevalently in Baquba than I think they have been used elsewhere in Iraq to date.

Aiming at al-Qaida of Iraq

RAY SUAREZ: Part of the idea was to reduce the violence against civilians by putting pressure both in the Baghdad belts and increasing the emphasis on Baghdad in Anbar. Has that worked?

MICHAEL GORDON: Well, you know, it's really early days in terms of the operation in the Baghdad belts. You know, you have to clear the houses. You have to roust the insurgents. You have to capture some, and then there's a very important phase that's going on now. You have to consolidate your gains, put in Iraqi security forces.

One of the interesting elements of this operation is the United States military has begun to work with former insurgents. And while I was in the Baquba city, really in the Buhritz neighborhood, the American military is literally working with former insurgents from the 1920 Revolutionary Brigades.

And this is a group that's really formed a kind of marriage of convenience with the American forces, which is largely aimed at al-Qaida of Iraq, an organization most of the residents found overbearing, imposed a very draconian form of Islamic law. The residents really wanted it out.

So this is a whole thing that's unfolding over the summer. Now, if you ask what the immediate effects of the so-called surge has been in Baghdad over the past several months, to date the effect has been to reduce the attacks against civilians measurably. The overall attacks are still constant. There are more attacks against the American forces, but there are fewer attacks against the civilians, which was one of the principal purposes of the operation.

RAY SUAREZ: But some of those attacks have been extremely lethal, like the ones over the past 72 hours, haven't they?

MICHAEL GORDON: There are just not enough American forces to stop the violence in all parts of the country. So what happened was after the American and the Iraqi security forces and the former insurgents, who are allied now with the Americans and its alliance of convenience against the al-Qaida forces, moved into Baquba, there have been a number of very horrific bombing attacks in small villages, you know, north of Baghdad.

And this is probably -- no one can say for sure, but this is probably a way for the militants to strike back, to show they're still a force to be reckoned with. But, you know, it was never the purpose of the surge to stop violence in all of Iraq. That's impossible; we need 400,000 or 500,000 troops if that was the goal.

The goal was to restore some modicum of stability and security in Baghdad, to do that by putting a portion of the force inside the city by making population security the principal objective, by establishing a combat outpost and joint security stations in key parts of the city, and then by going in the periphery of the city, in the outlying areas, to look for the insurgent sanctuaries.

Baghdad security is really what the name of the game is. And so far, you know, it's somewhat improved, although, you know, this is still a very dangerous place to be.

A political military strategy

RAY SUAREZ: An interim report on the effectiveness of the surge is due soon. From the officers you've spoken to, from the people who are taking the fight to the enemy that you've been riding with in that Stryker brigade, how do they think it's going?

MICHAEL GORDON: Well, I mean, it's important to realize that this strategy is really political military strategy. Everybody understands, from General Petraeus on down, that you can't achieve a military victory, per se, here in Iraq. And the purpose of this elevated force levels is not to achieve a clear-cut victory, but it's to set the conditions that would facilitate some form of political reconciliation.

And what we've seen so far is that the military side of the operation has been generally successful. The area where the American forces are, the violence is somewhat less. They've had some success going against al-Qaida of Iraq. They've been able to work more successfully with tribal elements and with former insurgents. The military piece is going pretty well.

The unfortunate part so far is that the political reconciliation that the military strategy is supposed to enable has simply not happened to date. I mean, the idea was that, by introducing stability in Baghdad, the Shiite-dominated government would adopt kind of a reconciliation program towards the Sunnis and other groups, and it would become more of a unity government. They would pass key elements of legislation that would bring more groups into the fold, so to speak. And that really hasn't happened so far.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael Gordon of the New York Times joining us from Baghdad, good to talk to you, Michael.

MICHAEL GORDON: Well, thank you.